Stoner music for sober eccentrics

BESTS AND BUSTS
An opinionated take on the week in music, Sept. 19-25

Gig of the Week

BaBa ZuLa (Cedar Cultural Center, Sunday, Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m., $18 in advance, $20 day of show)

Here’s an act that seems to have been hatched from a potent concoction of hash brownies. Their name, BaBa ZuLa, provokes thoughts of some daft meld of Arabia and Africa, but in fact they are a trio from Turkey with a flexible entourage. Their music is a daft meld, all right, but one that twines the gypsy canters and hazy, smoke-ringed ululations of their native rhythms with late ’60s psychedelia and 21st century electronica samples and knob pushing.  A multimedia phenomenon, BaBa ZuLa counts a “live drawing artist” among their standard retinue of performers and frequently throw a belly dancer or two into the mix. Costumes, poetry, theater, and live animation are not out of the question.

The core trio includes founding members Murat Ertel and Levent Akman. Ertel is the Eric Clapton of the electric saz, a guitar-like implement that the band’s bio page proclaims to be “the first and only electrified Turkish instrument.” Akman keeps his hands roaming from the bongos and the spoons to other assorted percussion while occasionally changing the program or boosting the reverb on samples stored in various machines in front of him. Kosar Camci rounds out the core lineup on darbuka drums (the resonant percussion often associated with belly dancing).

More evidence of hash brownies in the group’s DNA stems from their calling their music “Oriental dub,” and then promptly debunking the term. According to the band’s website, “Despite sounds that might initially come to mind when one hears the phrase, ‘Oriental dub,’ BaBa ZuLa’s music is in fact rock ‘n roll that rolls in a way that Westerners haven’t heard since the late ’60s rock epoch.” Of course they also say that “[A]n electric saz together with a wooden spoon can serve as musical compass to Turkish musical roots going as far back as pre-Islamic, shamanic times. …”

Whatever. Be they claptrap or cosmic koans, word descriptions of BaBa ZuLa don’t capture the unique, arresting rhythms and textures they create, which have compelled A-list producers like the Mad Professor and Sly & Robbie to work on their discs, and cult faves such as Henry Cow’s Fred Frith and Tom Waits cohort Ralph Carney to chime in as guest stars. Hear for yourself the spacey churn and bluesy splendor these Turks muster up in this clip (a spectral piece of psychedelia, complete with belly dancer), in this four-month old ditty where Ertel is kicking out the jams on the saz, or this nifty song with the checkerboard floor.

Live performance of Baba Zula on TV8

True Believers

Maria Muldaur (Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Tuesday and Wednesday,  Sept. 23 and 24, $25 at 7 p.m. and $20 at 9:30 p.m.)
Xavier Rudd (First Avenue, Wednesday, Sept. 24, $20 in advance, $22 at the door but SOLD OUT)

It used to be when you read the headlines, only the folks at the Wall Street Journal seemed to be having any fun – until the mortgage bubble-cum-looming-Depression (not to mention Rupert Murdoch) spoiled even their party. If you’re looking for socio-political sustenance in these mean times, Muldaur and Rudd are credible mood-lifters. From her early days with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band through her fame boomlet via “Midnight at the Oasis” and on to the jazzy blues of her current style, Muldaur has a down-home spirit that wears well.

Her latest, “Yes We Can!” is not just a shameless plug for Barack Obama, but a collection of (mostly) anti-war songs that avoid weary liberal cant (even the tune with the execrable Holly Near on it). A slowed-down version of Edwin Starr’s “War,” a trio of Dylan covers, and a rousing rendition of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” (remember the Pointer Sisters?) all prove to be shrewd choices, although, as soulful as Muldaur may be, she should have left Marvin’s “Inner City Blues” alone. As is often the case, the deciding factor is the quality of the obscure schmoes in the band, and Muldaur’s ensemble, The Free Radicals, with guitarist Shane Theriot, ensures a high level of quality control.

Xavier Rudd might have been my gig of the week if the show weren’t already sold out. An Aussie surfer who shares his countrymen Midnight Oil’s alarm of aboriginal exploitation, Rudd, like Muldaur, performs with such inherent spunk and bonhomie that you’ll endorse the medium even if you disdain the message. For most of his career, Rudd was renowned as a one-man band in concert (and the studio, via overdubs), but his latest, “Dark Shades of Blue,” expands his sounds with stunning resplendence in part by enlisting the help others. Rudd will still wail on his Weissenborn guitars (a la Ben Harper) and include a didgeridoo in his panoply of instruments – it just might not be him doing all the work. The economy sucks, but scalp a ticket to this if you can.

A natural novelty and a painful pretender

Tone-Loc (Bogart’s, Friday, Sept. 19, 11:30 p.m., $12)
Everlast (Fine Line Music Café, Monday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m., $18 in advance, $20 day of show)

I made fun of Bogart’s about a month ago for bringing rapper Coolio into that gangsta hotspot of Apple Valley. Tone-Loc is a much better fit. His monster hit, “Wild Thing,” was an instantaneous frat-boy staple, with a mischievously bewitching beat giddy enough to roil the hips of the most chaste listeners. It was so good, in fact, that Loc played the Gary Puckett & The Union Gap card and issued another single, “Funky Cold Medina,” that sounded exactly like it, confirming him as novelty act right from the start. Novelties have no artistic leeway, but durable (if very low-level) commercial appeal. Who isn’t just a little tempted to go get a pure taste of “Wild Thing” tonight?

Everlast could have gone the novelty route after his hit “Jump Around” with House of Pain made him the token Irish hooligan in the hip-hop orbit. But he opted to be an artiste, earning his merit badge a decade ago with “Whitey Ford Sings the Blues,” a dusty country-blues ramble inflected with just the right smidgen of his hip hop roots. Alas, 2008 finds him sounding painfully desperate and confused on the tellingly titled “Love, War and the Ghost of Whitey Ford,” issuing overwrought political manifestos like “Kill The Emperor” and “Stone In My Hand” on the one hand and then going screwball novelty with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” that contains a prominent sample of “Jump Around’s” squiggly signature whistle. As Billie Joel once sang (and continues to prove), “Only the Good Die Young.”

Gadget Music

Ratatat (First Avenue, Friday, Sept. 19, 8 p.m., $11)
Delerium (Myth Nightclub, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 9 p.m., $20)

Ratatat and Delerium both feature a couple of dudes who like to monkey with soundscapes, but the similarity ends after that. Brooklyn’s Ratatat have the scale of toymakers, DIY, Popular Mechanics types who fashion fascinating trip-hop miniatures full of all sorts of textural wrinkles and rhythmic nooks and crannies. Vancouver B.C.’s Delerium began in the late ’80s as a kind of ominous, death-folk trance band and have evolved into fairly religious spray-painters of widescreen sheens.

After eschewing vocalists for most of their career, they load up on their most recent disc, “Nuages du Monde,” with a bevy of thrushes who further the Evanescence and Enya similarities of their big smooth arrangements. Both are in the right venues, with Ratatat holding forth at scruffy First Ave and Delerium headlining a bill that includes at least three other openers at the sleek and capacious Myth.

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